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The Hudson’s Bay Company was a significant British trading company, leading in fur trade, exploring and developing the Canadian wilderness, and holding the biggest territory of any company in the history of the world from its foundation in 1670 till the forced sale of its landholdings in 1869. Since the land sales it has remained a significant actor in Canadian business till present times.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was founded as a monopoly by a royal charter given by King Charles II (1630–1685) in concession to Prince Rupert (1619–1682), the king’s cousin, and his syndicate was subscribed to by royal courtiers. Originally, and until 1970, headquarters were in London while the main area of activities was located in the Hudson’s Bay area of what is now eastern Canada and northeastern United States. From its beginning the company antagonized the French, especially those of Montreal, who had already established trading interests in the Hudson’s Bay area. However, temporary political affinity prevented active hostilities between the company and the French until 1689, when relations between England and France soured as William III (1650–1702) and Mary (1662–1694) ascended to the throne of England and joined the Netherlands in the League of Augsburg against France. As the political climate opened for hostilities, the conflicts of interests between French Canadians and the Hudson’s Bay Company led to continued fighting for nearly a century, in which the loyalties of the Native Americans were eagerly pursued by both sides both as fighting and as trading partners.
The main products of the sparsely populated Hudson’s Bay region were furs and pelts, especially highly profitable beaver pelts, which were much valued in Europe where, manufactured into felt, they were used for a range of hats, including the triangle hat that was in common use in the eighteenth century. Many of the beaver pelts were acquired through trade with the Native Americans, who through their choice of trading partners came to be allied with either the French Canadians or the Hudson’s Bay Company. Originally the company offered standard European manufactured products, such as metal tools like scissors and hatchets, and vanity items in exchange for the beaver pelts traded with the natives. The exchange rate was fixed with the beaver pelt as the main currency: a “made beaver” could be precisely measured in value against European manufactured goods and the furs of other Canadian game, and tokens were even minted by the company to match the value of a pelt, with values from one-fifth to one whole beaver. In 1780, the company introduced a new product, the point blanket, which was a durable woolen blanket that won favor with European Canadians as well as Native Americans, who started to accept the blanket as one of the main goods of trade, as they found it useful both as clothing and as a standard blanket.
Contention about land arose in connection with the American Revolution, as the Hudson’s Bay Company and the new states tried to claim the same territory in the border region around the Great Lakes. The dispute was settled, largely in favor of the United States, by the Treaty of Paris (1783), in which Britain acknowledged the new republic and its national borders.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was in charge of enormous landholdings, at its height estimated at about one-twelfth of the solid surface of the earth, and through its explorations into the chartered territory it provided a great contribution to the knowledge of the area. Through most of its early existence, the company was almost all male, governors as well as associated employees usually living as singles as the cold Canadian climate was considered particularly unsuitable for white women.
In 1869 the British North America Act was passed, creating Canada as a self-governing dominion of the British Empire. A condition for the formation of the new state was the sale of the chartered area and the end of the monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Given no choice but to sell, the company was handsomely paid for giving up its land and rights. After the land sale and breakup of the monopoly, the company turned increasingly to retail, fur auctioning, and, after 1929, oil and gas, remaining an important factor in Canadian business and a contributor to the allied efforts in both World War I and World War II. In 1970 a supplemental royal charter turned the company into a Canadian company, and headquarters were moved from London to Winnipeg. In the twenty-first century, the Hudson’s Bay Company is Canada’s biggest company in general retail and one of its five biggest employers.
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